Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jewish philosophy


Jewish philosophy

Jewish philosophy is philosophical inquiry informed by the texts, traditions and experiences of the Jewish people. Its concerns range from the farthest reaches of cosmological speculation to the most intimate theatres of ethical choice and the most exigent fora of political debate. What distinguishes it as Jewish is the confidence of its practitioners that the literary catena of Jewish tradition contains insights and articulates values of lasting philosophical import. One mark of the enduring import of these ideas and values is their articulation in a variety of idioms, from the mythic and archetypal discourse of the Book of Genesis to the ethical and legislative prescriptions of the Pentateuch at large, to the admonitions of the Prophets, the juridical and allegorical midrash and dialectics of the Rabbis, and to the systematic demonstrations, flights of imagination, existential declarations and apercus of philosophers in the modern or the medieval mode.

1 The nature of Jewish philosophy

Students of Jewish philosophy, especially those who aspire to contribute a window or a wing to the edifice, must learn many languages, to read and listen to voices very different from their own. Just as the writers of the Genesis narratives or of the Pentateuch had to recast and reinvent the ancient creation myths and the ancient Babylonian laws to express the distinctively universal ethical demands and aesthetic standards of their God, and just as the Deuteronomist had to rediscover the ethical core in the original Mosaic legislation, hearing God’s commands now as urgent reminders through the very human voice of Moses, so in every generation new interpreters are needed, to rediscover what is essential and living in the tradition. Such interpreters have always needed to negotiate the rapids of historical change – not just with regard to idiom but also with regard to content, refocusing and restructuring the living tradition, sculpting it philosophically with their own moieties of reason. Such thinkers have worked always with a view to the continuity of the tradition; that is, to the faithfulness of its future to its past, but also to the vitality and vivacity of what they found timeless in the tradition and therefore capable of acquiring new meanings and new spheres of application in the present.

The confidence of the practitioners of Jewish philosophy in the conceptual vitality and continually renewed moral and spiritual relevance of the tradition is typically the reflex of an existential commitment to that tradition and to the people who are its bearers. That confidence, and its repeated vindication by the richness of the tradition itself, is also a wellspring of renewal and encouragement for the commitment that energizes it – even, and especially, in times of historical crisis and external pressures, which have rarely confined themselves to sheerly intellectual challenges. Symptomatic of that commitment is the prominence and recurrence of the philosophy of Judaism among the concerns of Jewish philosophy. However, the two should not be confused. The philosophy of Judaism is inquiry into the nature and meaning of Jewish existence. Its questions address the sense to be given to the idea of a covenant between the universal God and the people of Israel, the meaning of that people’s mission, their chosenness, their distinctive laws, customs and rituals and the relation of those norms to the more widely recognized norms of humanity, of which the Prophets of Israel were early and insistent messengers.

The philosophy of Judaism wants to understand Zionism, the Holocaust, the Jewish Diaspora and the historical vicissitudes that gave shape to Jewish experience over the millennia, from the age of the biblical patriarchs to the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, to the exile of the Jewish people and the return of many, after a hundred generations, to the land they had been promised and in which they had prospered, a land which some had never left but which most, for centuries, had pictured only through the sublimating lenses of sacred history, apocalypse and philosophy. The philosophy of Judaism wants to understand the ancient Jewish liturgy, the exegetical practices and hermeneutical standards of the Jewish exegetes. Like Freud, it wants to understand Jewish humour. Like Pico della Mirandola, it wants to understand Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and like Buber, it wants to understand Hasidism. The concerns of the philosophy of Judaism touch every aspect of Jewish experience, just as the concerns of philosophy at large touch every aspect of experience in general. But the concerns of Jewish philosophy, like those of general philosophy, do not confine themselves to Jewish experience. They are, in fact, the same concerns as those of general philosophy, rendered distinctively Jewish by their steady recourse to the resources of the tradition, and sustained as philosophical by an insistence on critical receptivity, responsible but creative appropriation of ideas and values that withstand the scrutiny of reason and indeed grow and give fruit in its light.

2 Strengths and weaknesses

There are two weaknesses in Jewish philosophy as practised today. One is a tendency to historicism, that is, the equivocal equation of norm with facticity and facticity with norm that leads to an abdication of philosophical engagement for a detached clinical posture or an equally unwholesome surrender of judgment to the flow of events. Historicism is a natural by-product of respect for tradition, or of expectation of progress. It becomes particularly debilitating under the pressure of positivism, whether of the logical empiricist sort that dominated philosophy for much of the early twentieth century, or of the more endemic sort that thrives on the sheer givenness of any system of law and ritual or that allows itself to be overwhelmed by the press of history itself. It is not unusual, even today, when logical positivism is widely thought to be long dead, to find scholars of Jewish thought who substitute historical descriptions for philosophical investigations, often in the process begging or slighting the key philosophical questions. Nor is it unusual among those of more traditional stamp for scholars to be found who imagine that a faithful description of the contents of authentic Jewish documents constitutes doing Jewish philosophy – as though faithfulness to the tradition were somehow a substitute for critical grappling with the issues and problems, and as though the question as to what constitutes faithfulness to the tradition, conceptually, historically, morally and spiritually, were not itself among the most crucial of those issues and problems.

The second weakness is a narrowing of the gaze, a tendency to substitute philosophy of Judaism for the wider discourse of Jewish philosophy, as though the resources of the tradition had nothing (or nothing more) to contribute to ethics, or natural theology, or metaphysics and logic, for that matter. The work of the great practitioners of Jewish philosophy has repeatedly given the lie to such narrow expectations. In every epoch of its existence, Jewish philosophy has played an active role in the philosophical conversation of humankind – which is a universal conversation precisely because and to the extent that those who take part speak every language and bring to the conversation experiences that are universal as well as those that are unique.

But if two weaknesses are to be mentioned here, at least one strength should be cited as well: Jewish philosophy, although intimately engaged throughout its history with the philosophical traditions of the West, has also been a tradition apart. The open access of most of its practitioners to the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Jewish sources has afforded a perspective that is distinctive and that can be corrective of biases found in other branchings of the tree of philosophical learning. The early access of medieval Jewish philosophers to Arabic philosophical and scientific writings, and to the Greek works preserved in Arabic, enriched and broadened their philosophical repertoire. The scholastic learning of later medieval Jewish philosophers and their collaboration with scholastic thinkers made them at once participants and observers of in the lively philosophical debates of their day. The immersion and active participation of Renaissance and Enlightenment Jewish philosophers in the movements that spawned modernity gave them a similar philosophical vantage point. All philosophers must be, to some degree, alien to their society – Socrates and Nietzsche, and for that matter even Plato, Aristotle and Descartes were, to some degree, intellectual outsiders in their own times – not so alien as to have no word or thought in common with their contemporaries, but not so well integrated as to become mere apologists, or complacent and unquestioning acquiescors in the given. Jewish philosophy has long made and continues to make a distinctive, if today underutilized, contribution to cosmopolitan philosophical discourse in this regard. It shares the problematic of Western philosophy but typically offers a distinctive slant or perspective that calls into question accepted verities and thus enhances the critical edge of philosophical work for those who study it.

3 Movements and important figures

Jewish philosophy has over the course of its history been the source of a number of different types of study based on the philosophically relevant ideas of the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic Law (Halakhah), Rabbinic theology and Rabbinic homiletics, exegesis and hermeneutics (midrash) (see Bible, Hebrew; Halakhah; Theology, Rabbinic; Midrash). The anti-Rabbinical, biblicist movement known as Karaism and the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah are examples of differing types of movements which have emerged (see Karaism; Kabbalah), while Jewish voluntarism and Jewish Averroism were fields for the rivalry between intellectualist and less deterministic, more empiricist views of theology as it was played out among Jewish thinkers (see Voluntarism, Jewish; Averroism, Jewish). More modern movements include the Jewish pietist movement founded by Israel Baal Shem Tov and known as Hasidism, the Jewish Enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah, and Zionism, the movement that led to the establishment of the modern State of Israel (see Hasidism; Enlightenment, Jewish; Zionism).

The first exponent of Jewish philosophy was Philo of Alexandria, a major contributor to the synthesis of Stoicism, Middle Platonism and monotheistic ideas that helped forge the tradition of scriptural philosophy in the West. Other early figures include Daud al-Muqammas and Isaac Israeli, two of the first figures of medieval Jewish philosophical theology. Al-Fayyumi Saadiah Gaon (882–942), the first systematic Jewish philosopher, was also a major biblical translator and exegete, a grammarian, lexicographer and authority on Jewish religious law and ritual. The rationalism, pluralism and intellectual honesty evident in his work made it a model of Jewish philosophy for all who came after him. Solomon ibn Gabirol (c.1020–c.1057), long known as a Hebrew poet, was discovered in the nineteenth century to have been the author as well of the famous Neoplatonic philosophical work, preserved in Latin as the Fons Vitae. Moses ibn Ezra (c.1055–after 1135) is notable for his poetic and philosophic conributions. Abraham ibn Ezra (c.1089–1164) is likewise noted for his hermeneutical ideas and methods; his forthright approach to the Hebrew Bible was a critical influence on the thinking of Jewish philosophers from the Middle Ages to Spinoza and beyond. A less familiar figure is Abu ’l-Barakat al-Baghdadi (fl. c.1200–50), a brilliant Jewish thinker who converted to Islam late in life. He developed highly independent views about the nature of time, human consciousness, space, matter and motion. His work undercuts the notion that the medieval period was simply an age of faith and static commitment to a faith community.

A polymath of rather different spirit was Abraham bar Hayya in the eleventh century, who wrote on astronomy, mathematics, geography, optics and music as well as philosophy and who collaborated on scientific translations with the Christian scholar Plato of Tivoli, the transmitter of the Ptolemaic system to the Latin world. Bar Hayya’s Meditation of the Sad Soul expresses the forlornness of human life in exile from the world of the divine, a forlornness tinged with the hope of future glory. Joseph ibn Tzaddik (d. 1149) similarly developed Neoplatonic ideas around the theme of the human being as a microcosm.

Bahya ibn Pakuda (early twelfth century) wrote as a pietist philosopher. He placed philosophical understanding and critical thinking at the core of the spiritual devotion called for by the sincerest form of piety. Judah Halevi (before 1075–1141), probably the greatest Hebrew poet after the Psalms, wrote a cogently argued philosophical dialogue best known as the Kuzari, but more formally titled, A Defence and an Argument in behalf of the Abased Religion. Set in the Khazar kingdom, whose king, historically, had converted to Judaism, the work mounts a trenchant critique of the intellectualism of the prevalent philosophical school and the spiritualizing and universalizing ascetic pietism that was its counterpart. Calling for a robust recovery of Jewish life and peoplehood in the Land of Israel, the work is not only a striking anticipation of Zionist ideas but a remarkable expression of the need to reintegrate the spiritual, intellectual, moral and physical dimensions of Jewish life.

Abraham ibn Daud (c.1110–80), a historian as well as a philosopher, used his historiography to argue for the providential continuity of the Jewish intellectual and religious tradition. His philosophical work laid the technical foundations that made possible the philosophical achievement of Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), the greatest of the philosophers committed to the Jewish tradition. Besides his medical writings and his extensive juridical corpus, which includes the authoritative fourteen-volume code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides was the author of the famous Guide to the Perplexed. Written in Arabic and intended for an inquirer puzzled by the apparent discrepancies between traditional Judaism and Aristotelian-Neoplatonic philosophy, the Guide is a paradigm in the theology of transcendence, addressing questions ranging from the overt anthropomorphism of the scriptural text to the purposes of the Mosaic legislation, to the controversy over the creation or eternity of the world, the problem of evil, and the sense that can be made of the ideas of revelation, providence, divine knowledge and human perfectibility. Like Halevi’s Kuzari and Bahya’s Duties of the Heart, the Guide to the Perplexed continues to be studied to this day by Jews and non-Jews for its philosophical insights.

Abraham ben Moses Maimonides (1186–1237), the son of the great philosopher and jurist, began his scholarly life as a defender of his father’s work against the many critics who feared Maimonidean rationalism. In his mature work he became the exponent of a mystical, pietist and ascetic movement, largely influenced by Sufism. Moses Nahmanides (1194–1270), exegete, theologian and a founding figure of the Kabbalistic theosophy, championed Judaism in the infamous Barcelona Disputation of 1263 and played a leading role in the Maimonidean controversy. He struggled to harmonize his conservative and reactive tendencies with his respect for reason and the unvarnished sense of the biblical text.

Ibn Kammuna (d. 1284) was a pioneer in other areas. Besides his work in the Ishraqi or Illuminationist tradition of theosophy, laid out in commentary on the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), he wrote a distinctively dispassionate study of comparative religions, favouring Judaism but fairly and unpolemically presenting the Christian and Muslim alternatives.

Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (c.1225–c.1295) was a warm exponent of Maimonidean rationalism and an ardent believer in the interdependence of faith and reason. His selections in Hebrew from the lost Arabic original of Ibn Gabirol’s magnum opus allowed modern scholars to identify Ibn Gabirol as the Avicebrol of the surviving Latin text, the Fons Vitae.

Hillel ben Samuel of Verona (c.1220–95), physician, translator, Talmudist and philosopher was a Maimonist who introduced numerous scholastic ideas into Hebrew philosophical discourse. Immanuel of Rome (c.1261–before 1336) was a prolific author of philosophical poetry and exegesis, often praising reason and intellectual love. Judah ben Moses of Rome (c.1292–after 1330), known as Judah Romano, was an active bridge person between the Judaeo-Arabic and the scholastic tradition of philosophical theology.

Levi ben Gershom, known as Gersonides (1288–1344), was an important astronomer and mathematician as well as a biblical exegete and philosopher. His Wars of the Lord grappled with the problems of creation, providence, divine knowledge, human freedom and immortality. Aiming to defend his ancestral faith, Gersonides followed courageously where the argument led, often into radical and creative departures from traditional views.

Hasdai Crescas (1340–1410), an ardent defender of Judaism against Christian conversionary pressures, was among the most creative figures of Jewish philosophy, challenging many of the givens of Aristotelianism, including the idea that the cosmos must be finite in extent. Crescas’ student Joseph Albo (c.1360–1444) sought to organize Jewish theology into an axiomatic system, in part to render Jewish thought defensible against hostile critics.

Profiat Duran (d. c. 1414), also known as Efodi, used his extensive understanding of Christian culture to criticize Christianity from a Jewish perspective. Deeply influenced by Moses Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra and by Neoplatonic and astrological ideas, he sought to balance the practical with the intellectual aspects of the Torah. Simeon ben Tzemach Duran (1361–1444) contributed an original approach to the project of Jewish dogmatics and an implicit critical examination of that project.

The Shem Tov family included four thinkers active in fifteenth century Spain (see Shem Tov family). Their works follow the persecution of 1391 and the ensuing mass apostasy of Spanish Jews and seek to rethink the relations of philosophy to Judaism. Shem Tov, the paterfamilias, criticized Maimonides and endorsed Kabbalah, but his sons Joseph, a court physician and auditor of royal accounts at Castile, and Isaac, a popular teacher of Aristotelian philosophy, and Joseph’s son, again named Shem Tov, wrote numerous Peripatetic commentaries. These offspring charted a more moderate course that enabled Jewish intellectuals to cultivate philosophy and the kindred arts and sciences while asserting the ultimate primacy of their revealed faith.

Isaac ben Moses Arama (c.1420–94), like Nahmanides, was critical of Maimonidean and Aristotelian rationalism but did not discard reason, seeing in it a crucial exegetical tool and an avenue toward understanding miracles and providence. Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), leader of the Jews whom Ferdinand and Isabella exiled from Spain in 1492, like Arama criticised Maimonidean rationalism in the interest of traditional Judaism as he saw it, but at the same time put forward a theistic vision of history and strikingly modern views about politics and the state. His son, Judah ben Isaac Abravanel, also known as Leone Ebreo (c.1460–c.1521), wrote the Dialoghi d’amore. Couched in the language of courtly love, the work explores the idea that love is the animating force of the cosmos. The work stands out as a brilliant dialectical exploration of the differences and complementarities of the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to philosophy.

Judah Messer Leon (c.1425–c.1495) was a philosopher, physician, jurist, communal leader, poet and orator. Awarded a doctorate in medicine and philosophy by the Emperor Frederick III, he could confer doctoral degrees in those subjects on the students in his yeshivah. He saw logic as the key to harmonizing religion and philosophy and favored scholastic logic over the Arabic logical works. His encyclopedia became a popular textbook, and his systematic elicitation of Hebrew rhetoric from the biblical text, in The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow, one of the first Hebrew books to be printed, was a masterpiece of cross-cultural humanistic scholarship. But Messer Leon failed to curb the spread of Kabbalah, whose underlying Platonic metaphysics he abhorred and whose appropriation by Christian Platonists he held in deep suspicion. Indeed, his own son turned toward the Kabbalah and sought to combine its teachings with the Aristotelianism favored by his father.

Yohanan ben Isaac Alemanno (1433/4–after 1503/4) brought together in his thinking Averroist, Kabbalistic, Neoplatonic and Renaissance humanist themes. He instructed Pico della Mirandola in Hebrew and in Kabbalah, bringing to birth what became a Christian, syncretic Kabbalism. Elijah Delmedigo (c.1460–93) was an Aristotelian and Averroist. He translated works into Latin for Pico della Mirandola and developed a subtle critique of the kabbalistic ideas that in his time were rivaling and often displacing what he saw as more disciplined philosophical thinking. Abraham Cohen de Herrera (c.1562–c.1635) was a philosophically oriented kabbalist of Spanish origin. His Spanish writings, in Latin translation, were blamed for inspiring Spinoza’s views.

4 Movements and important figures (cont.)

Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), a leading figure of the European Enlightenment, spread Enlightenment ideas to Hebrew literature, fought for Jewish civil rights and did pioneering conceptual work on political theory, especially with regard to religious liberty in his Jerusalem. Solomon Maimon (1753/4–1800) took his name in honour of Moses Maimonides. Trained as a rabbi, he pursued secular and scientific learning and became an important and original critic of the philosophy of Kant. Nachman Krochmal (1785–1840), a leader of the Jewish Enlightenment in Galicia, found anticipations of Kant, Hegel and Schelling in the ancient Jewish writings. His work shows how a thinker whose underlying assumptions differ from those of the idealist philosophers could take their views in quite a different direction from the one they chose.

Hermann Cohen (1842–1918), a major Kantian philosopher and one of the first non-baptized Jews to hold an important academic post in Germany, applied his own distinctive version of critical idealism to the understanding of Judaism as a spiritual and ethical system. Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), an important Hegelian thinker, went on to formulate a Jewish existential philosophy that deeply influenced many of the most prominent Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. Martin Buber (1878–1965), Zionist advocate of accommodation with the Palestinian Arabs and an admiring student of Hasidic traditions, added his own stamp to the continental tradition of Jewish philosophy by developing a widely influential dialogical philosophy that privileged relationships experientially and celebrated the I–thou, a mode of relation that allows for authentic encounter.

A number of twentieth century philosophers of Judaism have grasped at diverse threads of the Jewish experience, illustrating both the attractions of the tradition and the fragmentation produced by centuries of persecution that would culminate in the Holocaust, only to be accentuated by the centrifugal tendencies of Jewish life in post-Holocaust liberal societies. Ahad Ha’Am, the pen name of Asher Ginzberg (1856–1927), was an essayist who argued that the creation of a ‘spiritual centre’ of Jewish culture in Palestine would provide the sustenance needed to preserve the diaspora Jewry from the threat of assimilation. No state was needed. David Baumgardt (1890–1963) was a philosopher who sought to reconcile ethical naturalism with the ideals he found in the Jewish sources, but, unlike Hermann Cohen, Baumgardt did not explore those sources in close detail. Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1981) sought to devise a social mission and communal identity for Jews without reliance on many of the core beliefs and practices that had shaped that identity in the past. Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72) sought to salvage the spiritual dimensions of Jewish experience, which found expression both in ritual and in ethical and social action. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903–93) gave canonical expression to Orthodox ideals by focusing on the intellectual and ritual rigours of his archetypal figures, Halakhic man and the Lonely Man of Faith. Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–94), an influential Israeli thinker, struggled for the disengagement of authentic and committed religious observance from the toils of governmental officialdom. Jews are mandated, he argued, to observance, as a community. That imperative is not to be put aside. Neither can the observant pretend to ignore the State of Israel. But the State can give no mandate to religious observance, and religious faithfulness can impart none of its aura to the State. For it is essential not to place God in the service of politics. Emil Fackenheim (1916–) seeks an authentic response to the Holocaust, which he formulates in an intentionally inclusionary way, as a ‘614th’ commandment, not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory but to find some way, that might vary from individual to individual, of keeping alive Jewish ideas, practices and commitments.

How to cite this article:
GOODMAN, L.E. (1998). Jewish philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

Please note, this site uses web standards that your browser does not support.
See help for further information.

Back to Top